The China Rule & Cult of Confucius

China is big, old, and fascinating. Its importance in the larger scheme of things is such that there should be what I call “The China Rule.” This rule would apply as follows. If a scholar claims that history unfolds directionally or according to general rules, s/he must specifically test the claim using China as datum. If an archaeologist claims that something first appeared in the Levant or Mesopotamia, s/he must specifically consider the Chinese record before making the claim. If anyone asserts that something is a “cultural universal” or “human nature,” the assertion must specifically consider China.

The China Rule should apply with double force in the field of evolutionary religious studies or what could be called the bio-cultural history of religions. Although the field is vast and permeable, these studies can be divided into types and most scholars work within one of the following paradigms:

Mathematical: these abstract studies rely on rational choice and game theory developed by scholars firmly ensconced within Western intellectual, historical, and religious traditions.

Epidemiological: these studies focus on memory or cognitive constraints and the transmission of religious ideas which usually are Western but sometimes are based on small-scale societies that have been studied by ethnographers.

Experimental: these studies test Western subjects (usually undergraduates) using primes that are either religious or which evoke a response relevant to so-called “world religions.” The cognitive studies in this category are more general and typically test for apprehension of supernatural or invisible agents without reference to any particular religions.

Sociological: these studies rely on Western survey data to test relationships between “religion” and other variables; the religious concepts used in such studies are usually Western but sometimes derive from Western constructions of eastern “world religions.”

Anthropological: these studies revolve around an evolutionary-archaeological record developed mostly by Western scholars working in safe or accessible areas of the world; they often tell a chronological story about religion based on this limited record.

While all these kinds of studies are important, their relevance to the evolution and history of “religions” more generally is limited. Until we have all these kinds of studies which apply The China Rule, we cannot be confident that the results are generalizable. My sense is that China, past and present, looms as one giant counterfactual to conclusions that many scholars have drawn (or wish to draw) about the “evolution of religion.” No genealogy of religions is complete without China.

I mention these things because it explains my interest and coverage, over the past year, of Chinese supernaturalism and “religion.” My use of scare quotes here is particularly warranted, given that the Chinese didn’t until recently have a word for “religion” (they created one for purposes of translating Western ideas into Chinese) and most Chinese don’t conceive of “religion” as being a separate conceptual or historical category. It has long been part and inseparable parcel of everyday Chinese life, without the Western trappings of institutions, doctrines, hierarchies, or formalities.

While I sometimes hear that modern Chinese aren’t “religious,” this view derives largely from Western constructions and understandings of “religion.” Metaphysical ideas and supernatural agencies are alive and well in China. One of the most famous traditions, not nearly as old as others but still ancient, revolves around the famous sage Confucius (551-479 BCE).

There are debates about whether “Confucianism” is or is not a “religion.” As is true of debates about whether something is consonant with “true” or “authentic” Christianity or Islam or Hinduism, the answer depends on how the tradition is interpreted and constructed. When it comes to Confucian ideas, some prefer the philosophical-moral construction while others prefer the metaphysical construction.

There is however no debate that a ritual cult devoted to Confucius arose shortly after his death and that the Confucian Cult was eventually incorporated into the Imperial Cult. In “Sacrifice and the Imperial Cult of Confucius,” Thomas Wilson details the history of this development. He sets the stage by noting that the Chinese state, which originated in 1776 BCE, has long been concerned with the supernatural:

A principal duty of the Chinese court was to provide ritual feasts for the gods and spirits at imperial altars and temples. From ancient times to the early twentieth century, the emperor regularly offered a ritual feast–or sacrifice–to Heaven and Earth, the royal ancestors, the gods of grains and soils, sun and moon, stars, and other gods and spirits that reigned over different realms of the cosmos.

Ritual officers stationed throughout the empire venerated local deities, such as wind and clouds, mountains and rivers, city gods and the spirits of the banners that hung at cardinal locations throughout the city. Sacrifice was part of a complex relationship between men and gods based upon mutual dependency.

Wilson then examines the rise of the ritual-sacrificial cult, which “began as a local cult celebrated by Confucius’ biological descendants and his doctrinal heirs.”

Although the Confucian cult had popular appeal, it was most closely associated with the classically educated. Because a classical education was required for civil service, it was not long before the state realized the need to incorporate Confucius into the official cult.

Because the Imperial Cult was rooted in more ancient tradition and made no reference to Confucius, the incorporation process was not without difficulty. Like all canonizations, some things had to be forgotten and others privileged.

This process, which is both history and social construction, was byzantine but it always cohered around the ritual that permeated all aspects of Chinese life. In most cases the ritual involved sacrifice, which in the Chinese context means a feast to feed the spirits. Although Wilson recognizes that this ritual symbolism is rich and rife with semiotic possibility, he rightly focuses on the instrumental goals of sacrifice:

[T]o take sacrifice seriously for what it purports to be–a ritual feast to feed the spirits–is to recognize that it was a technical activity requiring exacting ritual mastery aimed at achieving concrete results. The immediate aim of sacrifice was to venerate the gods, the long-term aim was to nurture them so that the cosmic order would be maintained.

Here we have a splendid example of one of the oldest supernatural practices in human history: offering spirits or gods something tangible in exchange for something both tangible and intangible.


Wilson, T. (2002). Sacrifice and the Imperial Cult of Confucius History of Religions, 41 (3) DOI: 10.1086/463684

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8 thoughts on “The China Rule & Cult of Confucius

  1. Tom Rees

    Interesting stuff. A key aspect I think, though, of Chinese traditional society was that the ‘Imperial cult’ was followed by officers of the state but did not concern the day to day citizens very much. A bit like the royal cults of Ancient Egypt. They were not there for ordinary people. The little people had their own local gods and ancestor spirits. That’s important because that undermines a key claim – that religion is the glue that binds society together.

  2. Cris Post author

    This is very much true; in fact, Wilson says in his piece that the Imperial Cult had little to do with Taoism, Buddhism, folk beliefs, or “popular religion.” Anything that isn’t official or measurable or legible always seems to escape the analyses of those who claim that “religion” is the glue that holds societies together. Nevermind that these “religions” don’t fit their definitions or that these “religions” actually cleave more than they bind.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Consider that respect for the government is one of the strongest ‘glues’ for a stable state. Confucianism has as a goal honest and honorable service to the state and its subjects which is recognized by the public, serving to build respect for the government. Contrast that with the western habit of bullying and threats of divine torment to nurture respect for authority. Governments with an explicit goal of service (beyond self service and beyond the promise of martial protection) have been few in the west.

  4. Cris Post author

    There is an interesting article on this subject in today’s Atlantic. It is about Greece and what a mess it is in; the author argues that the Greek premier understands that many Greek citizens have effectively withdrawn their consent to be governed and that the problem is not economic but cultural. This is why he called for a vote on austerity; he wanted to force individual Greeks to acknowledge this and the consequences.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    Like the slackers in your next thread, they have been paid well to limit their productivity.

  6. London Counselling

    It is constantly amazing how in popular historical accounts so many devices that have been attributed to Europeans had previously been discovered or invented in Asia. Only the periodic lapses of contact between cultures explain this. This is what is so enjoyable and fascinating about the study of history and culture.

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